My interest here is IFS and meditation. I’m aware that there is a great deal of scientific research investigating meditation and a burgeoning field of research considering IFS. I have not yet come across any work critically considering the specific interface of the two in respect of how they operate as models of practice, despite the extensive use in IFS practice of forms of meditation; guided meditations in particular.
My contribution to considering this IFS-meditation interface comes out of my personal background in meditation – I was a student of American Zen Master Frederick Lenz during the 1990s. From 1999 to 2010, I was a member of Sahaja Yoga Meditation. In total, I have practiced meditation twice a day for about 30 years. This combines here with my recent entrance into the field of IFS as a Level one trained practitioner.
The following is an informal “Hypothesis and Theory” article. Such work “presents a novel argument, interpretation or model intended to introduce a new hypothesis or theory” (see here for context of how such a contribution to knowledge is framed). In other words, I think there is something new, interesting and useful for people who meditate, or want to meditate, that needs to be said and an IFS perspective can do this. It hasn’t, I think, been said before.
Methods of self-help
Although IFS developed as a therapeutic model for severely injured clients, the model as a way to help oneself seems applicable to the full range of human experience, up to the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Meditation is another interesting method that some recommend for self-help. I believe that I have personally benefited from my meditation practice and I was curious about the relationship between IFS and meditation.
In a September 2021 interview, Dick Schwartz critiqued mindfulness. He commented that,
mindfulness in particular is, for me, a good first step. You’re asked to separate from and observe your thoughts and emotions, and to do that in an accepting way, but not to interact with them. That’s fine if you believe that these are just ephemeral thoughts and emotions that come and go, or that they’re the ego, which many spiritual traditions tend to be irritated by, or even demonize. Then it makes sense to separate and just notice it without trying to do anything. But if you think of these, the way we’ve described [Parts] earlier as inner entities, many of whom are suffering, then it isn’t compassionate to just passively watch them.
I felt like Dick’s comment made a lot of sense; I got curious about what passed for meditation in IFS circles. What I found was a lot of guided meditations.
Some meditation teachers regard guided meditation as preparation for beginners in the development of a practice of silence meditation (see note 1). That is how I see it as well. Because I have practiced various forms of meditation for so many years, when I am asked to participate in a guided meditation session at the beginning of a meeting, my Parts get triggered. I have a Part that feels like participants should have already done their meditation before the meeting and show up already in their best state of mind. Valuable meeting time is being wasted on a guided meditation. I also have a Part that thinks that I am an experienced meditator and does not want to spend time in a basic practice like guided meditation. This Part suggests the analogy of a fluent reader being asked to practice singing the alphabet song.
How can we reconcile meditation and IFS? Since this question seemed unaddressed by the community, I decided to give it a try. I believe one use of meditation is to facilitate unblending.
I will focus on this use. I will need to be specific about the degree of blending in a given moment. For example, a Self to Parts proportion of 99:1 is almost all Self and no Parts (unblended) whereas a proportion of 1:99 is all Parts and almost no Self (blended). To calibrate our measure, suppose a mentally well person has a 1:1 proportion with roughly equal contributions from Self and Parts. In comparison, during a psychotherapy session, IFS practitioners might sustain a 6:4 or 7:3 proportion of unblending, being somewhat more in Self energy than in Parts.
This idea of a ratio will be important to bear in mind as we consider now how to meditate, using an approach that includes the idea of unblending.
How to meditate
Instructions are often of the form:
- Focus on your breath (or a mantra, or visual target, or whatever)
- Notice when your mind has wandered from the target
- Loop back to step 1
We can translate these instructions into IFS terms. Step 1 represents a managerial focuser Part whose job it is to keep attention on a non-Part target. Step 2 represents a managerial bouncer Part whose job it is to tell all the other Parts to keep quiet, except for the focuser Part. If any Part fails to cooperate, the bouncer Part is called upon to deal with it. There are at least two possible outcomes:
- Parts will be constantly popping in and out. There will not be much of a chance for the Self to radiate. Inexperienced meditators may encounter this monkey mind situation and give up, not knowing how to progress further.
- Will power can be deployed into the managerial Parts. These managerial Parts can, with effort, force other Parts into submission. This indeed makes some space for the Self to shine. However, this situation is a spiritual bypass because the Parts are suppressed. This is an unstable truce.
What is often not appreciated is that the typical instructions for How to Meditate are like training wheels. After a little practice, the method itself becomes a hindrance to meditation because it requires too much effort. In the best case, a person with 2:3 Self to Parts ratio might reach 6:4, but the method itself puts a limit on the degree of unblending. To really enjoy the Self in a profound way, all the Parts must willingly cede the stage to the Self, including the focuser and bouncer Parts. In a paradoxical twist, the Self shines brightly in direct relation to the effortlessness involved in the meditating: the less effort utilised, the more Self shines. In this way we can see that Parts unblending by ceding the stage to the Self must be done with full consent on their part; without fight, fear or dismissal, but instead with natural ease.
Easing into effortlessness
Here is what should happen in a truly effortless meditation:
- Ask all the Parts to quiet down for a duration
- Parts, being obedient, cooperate
- No muscular bouncer or focuser Parts are needed
Sounds great, but how does anybody develop such a mature practice? I suggest that we add an additional step to the original instructions:
- Focus on your breath (or a mantra, visual target, or whatever)
- Notice when your mind has wandered from the target
- Note down which Parts want attention and why
- Loop back to step 1
This is not a meditation practice, per se; this is an inner excavation practice. You are looking for Parts that need attention. What the original instructions bury is actually valuable information. The output of this process is a list of Parts and their concerns. You can bring this list to your IFS Practitioner or, if you don’t have a Practitioner, work with the list gently on your own. Get curious about these Parts. Ask the usual questions: What is your job? Do you protect other Parts? What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t do your job?, etc. These Parts refused to be quiet because they need your care and attention. As you scrub your inner system clean, bathing each Part in calm understanding, your Self will appear with more and more effortlessness and spontaneity.
We can suggest that paying these vocal Parts attention is a Self energized compassion for them.
I have already used the word target above to denote non-Part sensory experiences that are a necessary focus (by a focuser Part) for attention, in order to practice meditation or inner excavation. This non-Part target is a crude Parts detector because if you are not aware of the target, then there is a Part coming in between. When the bouncer and focuser Parts are overactive, any affectively neutral target for the focuser Part will do. You need something to try and return to and issues to do with quality of target (as discussed below in brief) are not important. With Parts frequently bubbling to the surface, the Self can barely connect with targets; steady, stable focus is elusive. Therapists who work with distressed clients see this all the time; these clients barely have any access to Self. These troubled clients might be 1:19 or even more severely blended.
As the Parts quiet down and meditation becomes effortless (e.g., Self to Parts ratio of 7:3), the choice of target for the focuser Part becomes an important consideration. An affectively neutral target is appropriate for beginners because it reduces the number of variables. When both Parts and the target can provoke emotion then the meditation practice is that much more challenging because there is too much going on. However, once Parts are willing and able to get quiet then an affectively neutral target like a bare wall or a lit candle becomes boring. Instead, when you have achieved some inner quietness, why not blend with targets that have qualities associated with satisfaction, beauty, joy, relaxation, or connection? Faint impressions of these affective states, enriched by ample Self energy, can be experienced with lush vibrancy. Targets with an affective charge, such as found in those arts evoking emotions (e.g., music), can help locate these elusive feelings. For example, a target associated with slight or faint relaxation can be experienced in a fully engrossing, enveloping, and entrancing way. In addition to any immediate sensation, an engrossing blending episode with an affectively charged target can create an emotional and attitudinal afterglow that can last for hours.
Exploration of targets
A systematic exploration of affectively charged meditation targets for focused concentration has not been undertaken, as far as I know. However we can say something. Targets can be mapped along at least four dimensions for example: location, Parts involvement, immediate sensation, and afterglow. Imagine the wonder of the sunrise at the Grand Canyon. This target is located in Nevada, prompts little Parts involvement, inspires awe, and probably has no affective afterglow. Given that Nevada is remote for most people and this may create a distancing factor that inhibits concentration, I suggest prioritizing locally available targets such as breathing associated sensation, locations relative to the body, and sensory stimuli. It is important to choose a target that might help achieve success in meditation. Consider music, for example as a case of a helpful target and a target’s characteristics along these four dimensions just mentioned. Listening to music is local to one’s body, prompts little Parts involvement (which is good), can inspire beautiful instant emotion, and probably has no affective afterglow (which is neutral, although afterglow can be enjoyable). Music is so captivating that even people who lack training in meditation can become engrossed in music (see note 2). However, to note, it is a different story with music making. Reading and performing music requires Parts, clashing with effortlessness. That is, effortless meditation is precarious in the sense that we can not entertain targets that prompt much Part involvement. Only top music performers might hope to perform while mostly in Self (e.g. 9:1 proportion). In general, useful targets are those that certainly avoid the need to navigate Parts in some way.
In closing, I want to emphasize that effortless meditation is the basic prerequisite to an exploration of targets for meditation with our concentrated focus. Without effortless meditation, you might as well use an affectively neutral target, like maintaining awareness of breathing, as you work toward effortlessness and access to Self. Your experience prior to effortlessness as a mental state induced by the act of mediating will mostly be cluttered with the focuser and bouncer Parts, and other Parts in need of attention and care. Once you have progressed in effortlessness then a vast array of targets open up to explore, each with their potential affective charge to enjoy in meditation and in post-meditation experience. From the focus that is meditation on affectively charged targets that imbue the user with some kind of beauty encountered, a wonderful experience can ensue that brings well-being. In essence getting there requires attention to Parts. That is something that meditators can, but shouldn’t, neglect.
2: Cardona, G., Ferreri, L., Lorenzo‐Seva, U., Russo, F. A., & Rodriguez‐Fornells, A. (2022). The forgotten role of absorption in music reward. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.